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Baltimore Orioles

Orioles observations on a potential rotation returnee pitching well, the middle infield competition and some bits of welcome news | ANALYSIS

SARASOTA, Fla. — By the third inning of Thursday’s exhibition against the Boston Red Sox, each candidate for the back half of the Orioles’ rotation had taken the mound at least once this spring.

John Means, a veteran relative to most of Baltimore’s starting candidates, and Jordan Lyles, an 11-year major leaguer, are seemingly assured two of the Orioles’ rotation spots, but a bevy of pitchers follow them as options. Most of that group is collection of starting prospects who have made their debuts in the past two seasons.

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In his first spring outing, Keegan Akin struggled with his command. Dean Kremer did his best to work around some troublesome defense. Alexander Wells and Mike Baumann got hit, and Bruce Zimmermann did the same as Thursday’s starter in an 8-5 victory over Boston. He didn’t feel well after his outing, one of several players in the Orioles’ dealing with what manager Brandon Hyde called “a little bit of a stomach bug.” Catcher Anthony Bemboom was scratched from Baltimore’s lineup, and right-handers Cole Sulser, Bryan Baker and Conner Greene were among the Orioles’ scheduled pitchers who never took the mound.

Coming in behind Zimmermann, Zac Lowther worked two scoreless innings in his first Grapefruit League outing this spring, then added another 15 or so pitches in the bullpen. The 25-year-old left-hander got regular turns in Baltimore’s rotation in September, largely taking advantage of them. With another major league opportunity in front of him, Lowther took a step Thursday toward opening the season as one of the Orioles’ starters.

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“I feel like I’m in a really good spot,” he said. “I ended the year on a positive note last year in September, and then going into offseason, I knew what I had to work on. I knew what I needed to do coming into spring to earn that rotation spot.”

Lowther said he made some changes to how he grips his slider, hoping that pitch will be part of a repertoire that helps him to get ahead early and finish hitters quickly. In Thursday’s two innings, he allowed a hit and a walk and struck out three Red Sox, including lefty killer Kiké Hernández and Jarren Duran, one of Boston’s top prospects.

Right-handers Tyler Wells and Jorge López are also in the mix for starting spots, and after pitching prospect Kyle Bradish worked two scoreless innings against a lineup of New York Yankees regulars Wednesday, Hyde said, “Well, everybody knows we have open spots, and Kyle’s someone that we’re looking at extremely closely.”

Lowther showed Thursday he’s worth a look, too.

Mateo in the middle

It’s not worth reading too much into spring training positioning, but the first time Jorge Mateo and Ramón Urías started together this spring, Mateo was at short and Urías was at second.

Both are contending to be Baltimore’s starting shortstop, though either could figure to make an impact at another spot, given first base is the only position in the Orioles’ infield that seems remotely settled. On Thursday, both made an impact offensively as well, with Urías hitting his second home run of the spring and Mateo lining a two-run double.

Mateo, 26, rose up the minor leagues as a shortstop but spent much of his initial major league time with the San Diego Padres as a defensive replacement in the outfield, largely thanks to his impressive speed. He doesn’t have a preference on his role.

“Just be on the field and play hard,” Mateo said. “I don’t care what happens tomorrow. Just focus on today.”

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Some good news

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Although top prospect Adley Rutschman’s right tricep strain spoiled one of the top storylines of the Orioles’ camp, they’ve made it through the first week of spring training games without any more significant injuries.

That remains the case after outfielder DJ Stewart took a 96 mph pitch off his left hand Wednesday. An X-ray Thursday morning showed the knuckle of Stewart’s ring finger was bruised, but not broken. Hyde said he should need only three or four days before returning to play.

It was one of two bits of good news Hyde discussed pregame Thursday, the other being MLB’s reported decision to give teams two extra roster spots early in the season, with pitchers around the league unlikely to be built up enough at the start of the year coming off a shortened spring training out of the league’s 99-day lockout.

“We’re definitely gonna consider using those both those for pitchers,” Hyde said. “It’s going to be necessary.”

Spring training

ORIOLES@RAYS

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Friday, 1:05 p.m.


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